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Recently by Michael Banks

By Michael Banks

The Fukushima nuclear accident last year “could and should have been foreseen and prevented” according to a report released yesterday by the 10-member Fukushima nuclear accident independent investigation commission. Chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former president of the Science Council of Japan, the report says the accident was a profoundly “man-made disaster” that was “made in Japan” and could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

The 88-page English version of the report says the accident was the result of “collusion” between the government, regulators and the plant’s operators. “They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents,” the authors write.

In its introduction, Kurokawa writes that the commission’s report “catalogues a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared”. Kurokawa adds that the “fundamental” failures of the plant were because of the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflective obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity”.

The Fukushima nuclear accident was caused by an earthquake and tsunami of a scale not seen in more than 1000 years, which struck north-eastern Japan at 2.46 p.m. local time on 11 March 2011.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, located some 225 km north-east of Tokyo, seemed to withstand the 9.0 Richter-scale earthquake, with the three operating reactors turning off automatically as it struck. However, the tsunami that followed a few minutes later poured over a seawall designed to protect the nuclear plant from waves up to about 6 m high (the tsunami produced waves more than 14 m high).

The plant was then flooded, causing the back-up diesel generators to fail, and – with nothing to cool the reactors – their cores started to melt.

The report offers seven recommendations, including establishing a new regulator for nuclear power as well as a committee that would monitor this new body.

See also “In the wake of Fukushima” and “Lessons from Fukushima”.


Artist’s impression of the dishes for the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array.
(Courtesy: SPDO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

A decision on who will build the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will have to wait after the SKA Organisation announced yesterday that no outcome had been achieved.

SKA is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of around 2000–3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy.

Two rival bids are going head-to-head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

The eight members of the SKA Organisation – including China, Italy and the UK – have the final say in who will host the telescope. They met yesterday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in the Netherlands to discuss the site selection advisory committee’s report, which according to leaks suggested that southern Africa had got the nod.

After the meeting the SKA Organisation issued a press release that gave no indication of a site choice, only saying that it “wished to move ahead with the site selection process”.

However, instead of going for a single winner, rumours on the blogs suggest that the SKA Organisation may opt for splitting the SKA antennas between Africa and Australasia. Indeed, this is already happening on a smaller scale via the two SKA prototypes: the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder in mid-west Australia and the MeerKAT array in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

Yesterday’s press release alluded that the SKA Organisation may be heading in this direction. The statement says that the members “recognised that it is desirable to maintain an inclusive approach to SKA”, adding that “it is important to maximize the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions”.

The SKA Organisation has now set up a scientific working group to “explore possible implementation options that would achieve this”. The working group will report back to the SKA Organisation at a meeting in mid-May, when perhaps a final decision will be made.

Square Kilometre Array

Artist’s impression of the proposed Square Kilometre Array site in Austrialia (Courtesy: Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

Is southern Africa a step nearer to hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)? That is what an unconfirmed report in the Sydney Morning Herald is suggesting.

SKA, costing €1.5bn, is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of around 2000–3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy. Two rival bids are going head to head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

Last month, an independent SKA site advisory committee sent its evaluation report and site-selection recommendation to SKA’s board of directors. The report was not published and only a vague press release was issued stating that a recommendation had been made. Since then, members of SKA have been tight-lipped about which bid may have got the thumbs up from the committee.

However, according to the report today in the Sydney Morning Herald, the site advisory committee has opted for southern Africa. “Australia, in a joint bid with New Zealand, has failed to convince an expert panel it offers a superior location for the project,” the report says.

Indeed, the rumour mill for a winning southern Africa bid was already set in motion late last month when African ambassadors meeting in Beijing issued a statement calling on the SKA organization to build the telescope “on the site recommended by the independent SKA site advisory committee”. The statement inferred that the South Africa-led bid had won the recommendation of the site committee. However, within a few hours of being posted on the press site AlphaGalileo the statement was taken down.

That is not the only recent SKA-related incident. A few days after the withdrawal of the press release, a server managing documents for SKA was apparently breached. However, according to Colin Greenwood, company secretary of the SKA Organisation, only “links to publicly available documents, such as the SKA research papers, were affected”.

The site advisory committee does not have the final say in where SKA will be sited. That will come when the seven members of the SKA organization – which includes China, Italy and the UK – meet in “late March or early April” to consider the report’s conclusions and make a decision about the location of the site. Only by then will we know for sure whether SKA is heading to southern Africa.

A waiting game

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By Michael Banks

Square Kilometre Array

Artist’s impression of the proposed Square Kilometre Array site in Austrialia (Courtesy: Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

I was rather hoping for more when I opened a press release from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) organization this morning.

SKA, costing €1.5bn, is a proposed ground-based telescope that will allow researchers to probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy.

SKA will consist of around 2000–3000 linked antennas spread from a central 5 km “core” containing about 50% of the collecting area out to far-flung stations as much as 3000 km away. The telescope will then have the same collecting area as a hypothetical steerable dish 1 km across.

Two rival bids are going head to head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa. The Australian design calls for a core in the west of the continent, with out-stations stretching eastwards to New Zealand. The South African project relies on a core in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape province, with the array extending northwards to eight neighbouring countries, including Madagascar and Kenya.

A decision on where to site SKA was widely expected to be made in February, and now the independent SKA site advisory committee has just submitted its evaluation report and site-selection recommendation to SKA’s board of directors.

Unfortunately for us mere mortals, we will not know the contents of the report until a later date. The press release gave no hint of who may host SKA, only saying that the seven members of SKA organization – which includes China, Italy and the UK – will now have a “face to face” meeting in “late March or early April” to consider the report’s conclusions and possibly make a decision about the location of the site.

If no consensus is reached at that meeting, then the members will “agree on the next steps in the process”. This one may drag on for some time to come.

Shamin Kharrazi talks about plans for the Iranian Light Source Facility

By Michael Banks

You may remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about Turkey’s plans to build a 3 GeV synchrotron in Ankara. In fact the next decade will see two other new synchrotrons springing up in the Middle East.

One – SESAME – is near Amman, Jordan, and I visited the facility earlier this week to hear how progress is moving towards completion by 2015 (see this story for more details).

Synchrotrons accelerate electrons to high energy and then make the particles generate flashes of X-rays as they travel around a circular ring. The X-rays are then sent down beamlines where they are used in a range of experiments from condensed-matter physics to biology.

However, a talk given by Shamin Kharrazi at the SESAME users’ meeting also outlined plans Iran has to build its very own synchrotron – the Iranian Light Source Facility (ILSF) – by 2020.

A conceptual design review for the 100 m diameter facility has just been completed and it is estimated that construction will begin by 2015.

Plans for the ILSF, like its Turkish equivalent, are still firmly on the drawing board, but researchers in Iran are hoping the facility will get funding. Kharrazi remarked that around seven years ago synchrotron radiation was not widely known to the authorities in Iran. Now, in a matter of only a few years, the country has plans for its own facility.

Indeed, over the past few years Iran has been building a community of those who could use their own national facility as well as SESAME. At times this has been painstaking and even involved researchers searching via Google for others around Iran who work with X-rays.

Kharrazi reassured SESAME users that Iran will still play an integral part in that project. “We think that by 2020 there will be enough demand for Iran to have its own synchrotron and also use SESAME,” says Kharrazi. “Just like France has the Soleil synchrotron as well as the ESRF.

A letter from space

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By Michael Banks

In a video interview with Physics World in June, Michael Schreiber, editor-in-chief of the journal EPL, marked the 25th anniversary of the publication by hoping that it would, one day, receive a submission from the International Space Station (ISS) (see video above).

We thought he was joking, but that day has now come. On 27 October Russian astronaut Sergey Aleksandrovich Volkov, who is currently aboard the ISS, submitted a paper via e-mail to EPL, which is jointly published by the Institute of Physics and the European Physical Society.

The paper was about measuring the speed of sound in a plasma under microgravity conditions. In an EPL editorial, Schreiber wrote that the journal has now left the confines of the globe “by publishing what is, I believe, the first manuscript ever submitted from beyond the globe, namely from the International Space Station”.

That all important caveat (“I believe”) proved its worth as it transpires that a paper was already submitted from the ISS in 2004 to the journal Radiology – published by the Radiological Society of North America.

Still, the EPL paper is perhaps the first physics-related article to be submitted from space. But Schreiber has even loftier ambitions: hoping for a paper from a space-trip to Mars to coincide with EPL’s golden jubilee in 2036.

Images from Turkey

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Institute of Accelerator Technologies, Ankara University
(Credit: Michael Banks)

By Michael Banks

If my recent travel (see here and here) to Ankara, Turkey, left you wanting to see more images from the trip, then fear no more.

On the Physics World Flickr page, you can now peruse selected images from the visit to the Institute of Accelerator Technologies at Ankara University, as well as the Proton Accelerator facility operated by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority.

Look out for further coverage from my trip to Turkey in future issues of Physics World.


By Michael Banks

Blink and it’s gone.

No, it’s not the latest in the search for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, but instead a slight difference in the mass between neutrinos and their antimatter counterparts, antineutrinos.

Neutrinos come in three “flavours” – electron, muon and tau – that change or “oscillate” from one to another as they travel though space.

It is generally thought that neutrinos and antineutrinos should have the same mass. Last year, however, results from the MINOS experiment at Fermilab, near Chicago, showed a 40% difference between muon neutrinos and muon antineutrinos (converting into tau neutrinos and tau antineutrinos, respectively) as they travelled from the accelerator to the MINOS detector (shown above) some 735 km away in the Soudan mine, Minnesota.

The results were presented with a “confidence level” of around 90–95%, which in statistical terms is approximately “two sigma” (usually a “discovery” requires five sigma).

Although the two sigma significance was small, the result was backed up three days later by a three sigma effect at another detector in the Soudan Mine – MiniBooNe. They saw a difference when muon neutrinos oscillate into electron neutrinos compared with the related process for muon antineutrinos.

Physicists noted that if the result turned out to be true it would not come as a surprise, but as an “overwhelming shock”.

But now it seems as though those fears have at least been partially allayed. After gathering twice as much data, researchers at MINOS announced yesterday at the Lepton Photon 2011 meeting in Mumbai, India, that they found the difference had dropped from 40% to 16%.

So it seems that there is still a disparity, but more data will be needed before we can be sure whether there is any mass difference between neutrinos and antineutrinos.

By Michael Banks

Unobtanium, collossium and fibonaccium. Those were just some of your suggestions for the name of element 112 following its confirmation two years ago.

In the end researchers, led by Sigurd Hofmann and his group at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany, went for copernicium, which was finally approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in July 2009.

Now we want your suggestions for two new elements – 114 and 116 – after they were added to the periodic table following a three-year review by the IUPAC, which develops standards for naming new elements and compounds.

Currently element 114 is known as ununquadium with element 116 named ununhexium.

The elements were spotted by researchers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia, back in 2004, but only confirmed last year by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the GSI lab.

Researchers at the JINR will now get the chance to name the new elements. They will submit their suggestions to the IUPAC who will then publish them on its website for six months giving scientists and the public time to scrutinize and comment on the new name.

So readers what are your suggestions?

Templeton Prize HRH & Martin Rees.jpg
Martin Rees picks up the Templeton Prize from Prince Philip
(Courtesy: Clifford Shirley)

By Michael Banks

Can you guess what these two are saying to each other?

The photo, which was taken yesterday, shows the cosmologist Martin Rees from Cambridge University picking up the 2011 Templeton Prize at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Rees was presented with the gong, which comes with a cheque for a whopping £1m, by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in a private ceremony that was also attended by seven former Templeton winners, including Paul Davis and George Ellis.

Yesterday also happened to be Prince Philip’s 90th birthday.

According to the Templeton Foundation, the prize is awarded for “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities”.

The 68-year-old cosmologist was awarded it for his “profound insights” into the nature of the cosmos that have “provoked vital questions that address mankind’s deepest hopes and fears”.

There was some controversy around Rees being awarded the prize. Indeed, he told me he was “surprised” on hearing he had won and that he usually tries to avoid discussing science and religion with his views being “rather boring”.

There is not a £1m prize on offer from us, but readers – can you guess what is being said between Rees (right) and Prince Philip in our caption competition?

If we have some funny submissions then we may be able to dig out a prize for the best one.